MILWAUKEE — Two months ago, the scene would have been unremarkable: Howard Dean flanked by several union leaders, who praised the former Vermont governor and endorsed his presidential campaign.
But when Dean recently picked up the backing of Local 212 of the American Federation of Teachers at a Milwaukee technical college, even the candidate noted that -- under the current circumstances -- it was rare occurrence.
"This was a matter of stepping out and doing something that I think takes a lot of courage, and I appreciate it very, very much," he told the union members gratefully.
For Dean, such moments come like bittersweet echoes of a past campaign -- a time when he seemed to effortlessly attract slews of big-name endorsements and crowds of thousands that overflowed large auditoriums.
That was less than a month ago, before his third-place finish in Iowa's Jan. 19 caucuses. Now, as the end appears near for his candidacy, there are empty seats at his rallies. The audiences have dwindled to determined bands of supporters who call out encouragingly, "Don't give up!" as he walks by.
At the same time, some of his prominent backers have quietly distanced themselves -- and others have broken with him completely. Last week, the 1.4-million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees dropped its endorsement of Dean.
But the candidate has been unwilling to relent. He has crisscrossed Wisconsin in recent days, asking its voters to resuscitate his campaign in Tuesday's Democratic primary.
What was once called a 50-state presidential campaign is now pared down to an all-out focus on the Badger State. At Dean's headquarters in Burlington, Vt., the skeleton staff has changed the telephone hold music from the campaign theme song -- Leann Rimes' optimistic ballad "We Can" -- to the marching band oompah of the state song, "On, Wisconsin!"
"Wisconsin, you have the power to keep the debate alive," Dean has been telling audiences from Eau Claire to Racine.
Despite his efforts, polls show Dean badly trailing Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, even though Friday marked the first stop in the state by the Democratic front-runner in months. The surveys also show Dean could finish third, behind Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
The former governor, however, appears unfazed. Even-tempered and even upbeat at times, he refuses to indulge in reflective questions about what his campaign has meant and insists he will continue running regardless of Tuesday's results.
"I think it's a little early to be writing postmortems," he said Friday, standing in a hay-strewn barn in Durand.
Occasionally, the 55-year-old Dean seems almost jocular. During his stop in Durand, he gave a mellow version of his much-maligned speech after the Iowa caucuses: "We're going to go to California, and then we're going to go to Minnesota.... Yeargghh!"
Most candidates would brood after such a roller coaster year -- rising from a relative unknown to the top, only to tumble rapidly. But Dean remains energetic on the campaign trail.
At a youth center in Milwaukee on Tuesday, he peeled off his suit coat and engaged in an intense pingpong match with a 16-year-old boy, leaping across the table to hit the ball.
Saturday, as he flew home to Burlington to attend his 17-year-old son's ice hockey game, he played a raucous round of cards with the reporters on his campaign plane, laughing uproariously.
His aides, however, aren't so upbeat. Privately, they admit his prospects are dim and trade ideas about where to vacation when the campaign ends.
"Everybody knows this is a Hail Mary pass," campaign head Roy Neel said of Dean's attempt to reverse his fortunes in Wisconsin. "It's a longshot."
Many supporters strike a note of solace when they see Dean, thanking him for remaking the tenor of the race with his blunt criticism of the Bush administration.
"No matter what happens in this year, there are going to be two words that are going to tell the story of this election, and tell the story about how this country once again got its guts, once again recognized that it's time to stand up ... and it's all about a doctor who has shown us how to find our backbone: Howard Dean," Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said as he introduced Dean at a fundraiser last week.
As Dean took the stage, he acknowledged that the campaign has been "a tough slog," but he maintained his feisty tone. He took a swipe at Kerry, based on the senator's support of Bush on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to education reform.
"This campaign is not nearly over," he said, prompting loud cheers and applause from several hundred people. "I don't think it's going to be possible to win this campaign against George W. Bush if the following scene could happen [during a debate]: The president turns to the Democratic challenger and says in October, 'You were with me on the war, you were with me on No Child Left Behind, you helped pass my tax cuts -- why don't you just support me?' "
Afterward, people clustered around the stage to shake his hand. "We love you, Howard!" several called out.
"I've been volunteering for seven months," said Andy Larson, 28, a telephone sales worker, clutching his hand. "I worked for you in Iowa. Please, please, don't give up!"
"We won't," Dean assured him. "We won't."